FCC approves plan to allow low-power TV stations to program to radio listeners at 87.7 FM
“In a world where content feels like it is everywhere, there is still something special about local radio and a signal in the air,” said Chair Jessica Rosenworcel as the Federal Communications Commission unanimously voted Thursday to allow 13 low-power television stations that have been targeting radio listeners at 87.7 FM to continue to do so on a permanent basis – with one more to be added to the list.
“For the past two years, we have kept these stations on the air with the equivalent of regulatory gum and bailing wire,” Rosenworcel said. “We set up a temporary process that allowed for the use of a separate analog radio transmitter in combination with a digital television facility. Now it is time for something sturdier and more permanent.”
Under the revised rules, the LPTVs – dubbed by the FCC as FM6 but known in radio circles as “Franken FMs” – will be allowed to use new signal compression technology to carve out part of their TV signal to reach radio listeners. Yet because interference evidence is “anecdotal,” the Commission is playing it safe. It will not allow any additional new FM6s beyond those already approved.
For the FM6s that live on, the Commission has adopted a half dozen rules (MB Docket No. 03-185) that they will need to abide by. They include operating in digital while also providing their FM6 operations on 87.75MHz. The order also says that FM6 operations must be conducted on a “non-interference basis” to any other licensed primary or secondary users. Owners will also be allowed to modify their technical facilities if the station’s modified facilities remain within its current protected contour.
Rosenworcel downplayed the interference potential, however. “We have had two years of experience with this arrangement and no incidents of interference with television operations and adjacent licensees, including other stations on FM radio,” she said. And while the Commission cannot take programming into account in its decision-making, Rosenworcel also noted the FM6 stations have found listeners in their communities. “Right here in Washington, for instance, WDCN—La Nueva is one of these stations. Broadcasting out of Fairfax, Virginia, it is targeted to those with ties to Central America, featuring public service programming, music, and content from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. This is a small station that is a big deal to its listeners,” she said.
In a setback for critics, the FCC will also allow the FM6s to be sold. But they will need to maintain a public file for their radio operations.
The National Association of Broadcasters has been a longtime critic of FM6 stations, but last July its position softened when it said that the existing 13 should be permitted to stay on the air. On Thursday, the NAB said it is glad to resolve the long-standing issue with a “fair and efficient resolution” to how channel 6 spectrum would be used.
“The order adopted by the Commission today will protect channel 6 television operators while recognizing the audience built by existing FM6 stations,” said NAB President Curtis LeGeyt. “We support the FCC’s balanced approach that addresses long-standing questions surrounding this complex issue,” he said in a statement.
One more FM6 is coming as the FCC will allow WVOA-LD Syracuse, NY to join the list since it has been approved to make a similar signal split, although it has not yet done so because of signal coordination delays with Canadian regulators. But because WVOA-LD has no history on which to ensure it won’t cause interference, the FCC is giving it temporary status for one year.
But two other two legacy FM6 stations – WJMF-LD, Jackson, MS and KBFW-LD, Arlington, TX – were not given that option. The Commission’s justification for the decision is the pair discontinued their FM-targeted service when the digital TV conversion happened in July 2021 and there is no evidence an audience relies on the outlets any longer for radio service.
FM Won’t Get TV Spectrum
With its vote Thursday, the Commission also put a nail in the coffin of the idea of repurposing spectrum used by television channel 6 to expand the FM band. “We find that the plan is neither feasible, because of the possibility of interference,” the order says, “Nor appropriate, because TV6 spectrum is still needed for broadcast television use.” It also points out that radio receivers can only detect 87.7 FM and above.
Had the Commission gone the other way, an analysis by NPR engineers said for every one TV channel 6, the FCC could license 30 FM stations.